It wasn’t until his thirty-sixth birthday two months ago that Ignacio Hurban was told he was adopted. But his was no regular adoption — it transpired instead under the most violent of circumstances.
His real parents, Oscar Montoya and Laura Carlotto, were arrested in November 1977 by Argentina’s ruling dictatorship because of their political activities, disappearing into the macabre system of death camps the military set up across Argentina. His father was secretly executed shortly after his arrest. But his mother, two months pregnant, was kept alive until Hurban was born in June 1978, after which she was also murdered.
Hurban’s case was by no means an isolated one. It’s estimated that some 500 infants suffered the same fate during the bloody 1976-83 Argentinian regime, during which some 20,000 mostly young left-wing political activists were murdered. The military made only one exception during its killing spree: Pregnant women were kept alive until they gave birth. Afterwards, the infants were handed over to military families or unsuspecting couples to be raised according to the “Western and Christian” values the military claimed to defend. These infants grew up completely unaware of their real identities.
“It’s a crime beyond all imagination,” says Robert Cox, a British journalist who lived in Argentina during those years, bravely reporting and even confronting top generals personally about the crimes they were committing. “I still don’t understand how men who are meant to be men of honor, military men, could fall so low. It’s the one crime above all others that wakes us up to the horror of what happened and how terribly evil it was.”
Two former dictators of that regime were eventually convicted for the systematic kidnapping of children. Jorge Rafael Videla died in prison last year while serving a 50-year sentence, Reynaldo Bignone remains behind bars. Various military couples who knowingly took in such children have also been convicted, including cases in which the “adoptive father” played a hand in the killing of the infants’ real parents.
After Laura Carlotto disappeared in 1977, her mother, Estela Carlotto, now 83, moved heaven and earth looking for the grandson she heard from death camp survivors had been born in captivity. In her search, Carlotto started meeting mothers whose pregnant daughters had also “disappeared” at the hands of the military. With them she founded the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo association, a group that has dedicated decades of work to its painful search.
Carlotto’s untiring quest turned her into a major public figure in Argentina. That brought her a notoriety tinged with the sadness, as even though the Grandmothers located 113 grandchildren of murdered parents, she had not been able in all that time to find her own grandson. Last week, then, when it was announced that the 114th grandchild to be “recovered” was Carlotto’s, practically all of Argentina exploded with joy. The story has dominated the country’s public attention ever since.
“I didn’t want to die without hugging him,” Carlotto told the press, practically in tears, last Tuesday after she got a call from the judge handling the case confirming the DNA match.
But in the end it was actually Hurban who found his grandmother. Until last week, Carlotto’s lost grandson had lived under the name Ignacio Hurban, the son of Clemente and Juana María Hurban, two retired farm workers in Olavarría, a small town in Buenos Aires province. Over the years, Hurban and his wife had raised a family of their own, with two small children. He became a music teacher and an accomplished fusion musician, mixing classical, jazz and Argentine folklore musical styles, and has played with some of Argentina’s leading recording stars:
Hurban, who according to Argentine human rights law must now change his legal name to the one his mother reportedly wished for him at birth — Guido Montoya Carlotto — first started having doubts about his identity four years ago.
“There’s a noise in your head, doubts like butterflies outside your field of vision, there are things you don’t know, but you know, and then you start asking yourself questions,” he said Friday at a press conference in Buenos Aires.
When he was told two months ago for the first time that he was adopted, he decided to approach the DNA bank the Grandmothers have set up with samples of their blood, to see if he might be the son of a “disappeared” couple.
“Among the pieces that didn’t fit was my fondness for music,” said Hurban, commenting on the striking resemblance he now sees between himself and the pictures of his father he’s seen since his identity was confirmed by the DNA match. He said he was “shocked” to discover that his blood father, Oscar Montoya, was also a musician, and played in a group called “Nosotros y Ustedes” (Us and You) in his youth.
“I’ve found an answer to a question I get asked a lot: Why are you a musician?,” Hurban said.
The road ahead for Hurban — or Montoya Carlotto if he changes his surname — is not an easy one, says Victoria Donda, the 78th recovered grandchild, who today is a legislator in Argentina’s Congress. “It’s very difficult to process where you were born, how you were orphaned, to rebuild as an adult an entire biological family that you had never met, a different birthday, a different name,” she said in a press interview.
“I’m used to my name Ignacio and I’m going to keep it,” Hurban said at his press conference. “I also understand that there is a family who have called me Guido for 30 years. But I feel comfortable with what I’ve been given. I feel happy and grateful.”
When photographers at the press conference called him “Guido” to pose for a shot, he joked: “Come on, call me Ignacio.”
Still, a shadow still remains over the details of Hurban’s childhood. Carlotto has said that his adoptive parents were probably not aware he was the baby of a “disappeared” couple when they took charge of him. A court case has been opened to investigate the details of that adoption process. Urban described his adoptive parents as an “extraordinary couple” who raised him “with the greatest love.”
The happy ending to Carlotto’s long odyssey, meanwhile, has Argentina ecstatic. “There’s enormous euphoria now,” says Cox. “It seems a very wonderful ending, though it actually is a beginning really, it gives people a lot of hope for the remaining hundreds of still-unfound grandchildren.”
“This restitution is also a symbol,” said Hurban. “It’s a small victory within a big defeat.”